Skip to main content
Original Issue


An American matinee idol 30 years ago, Charlie Farrell is still very much on stage at the Palm Springs Racquet Club, the celebrity-filled institution that he founded, ran and rarely leaves

Tennis, it used to be said, was Hollywood's game.

In one of the funniest exhibition matches ever played, the partnership of Groucho Marx and Ellsworth Vines met and beat Charlie Chaplin and Fred Perry. Alice Marble and her coach, Eleanor Tennant, used to play with such movie personalities as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and Carole Lombard. And the big star who didn't occupy a front-row box at the Pacific Southwest tennis tournament sometime during the autumn week was pretty well obliged to turn in his sunglasses and unlisted phone number and find another occupation. Occasional rebels like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope preferred golf, but the Establishment of Hollywood took its athletic pleasures on the tennis courts until the whole place was wiped out by a deluge of video tape circa 1950.

All this has something to do with a man named Charles David Farrell. Charlie was very, very big in Hollywood in 1927, the year he appeared as Chico opposite Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven. Just about everyone connected with that movie won an Oscar—everyone, that is, except Charlie. Janet Gaynor won one as the best actress, Frank Borzage as the best director and Benjamin Glazer for writing the adaptation. Yet the one thing everyone remembers about Seventh Heaven is the scene where Chico is stumbling blindly through the sewers of Paris, groping his way back to the tenement he came from and into the arms of Janet, his love. In those days Charlie was probably the handsomest hunk of movie flesh ever to step in front of a silent camera. Seventh Heaven started a series of 12 Charles Farrell-Janet Gaynor love idylls that just about broke America's heart, or what was left of it after the Great Depression had done its dirty work.

Then, as far as Des Moines, Sioux Falls, Scranton and the like were concerned, Charlie Farrell disappeared—but as far as Hollywood, Palm Springs and tennis were concerned he was as big as ever, for after he left the screen he founded what has become a kind of sporting institution, and he is still very much around. Today you will find him at the place he built and ran, the Racquet Club in Palm Springs, Calif. He no longer owns it outright, although he retains a sizable first mortgage on it representing roughly 80% of the $1.2 million for which he sold it four years ago. But Charlie Farrell's personality has dominated the club ever since he and his wife, Virginia, and Ralph Bellamy, the actor, started it in a moment of exasperation 29 years ago when they were having trouble finding a place to play tennis with their friends. (Charlie's present title is chairman of the board, although he isn't exactly sure what that means.)

For most of the years since its modest beginning, the Racquet Club has been an institution in southern California roughly equivalent in prestige to the Coliseum, Caltech, M-G-M and the Hollywood Bowl. Sometimes it has even seemed to reflect all the glow and achievement of these other institutions. On its tennis courts and in its swimming pool and at its Saturday night dances you might once have found John McCormack, Ginger Rogers and the president of the Standard Oil Co. Elliott Roosevelt courted one of his wives at the Racquet Club bar while his father was still President of the U.S. Today another president, David McDonald of the United Steel Workers of America, spends his winter months around the Racquet Club. So does Dinah Shore. Your partner in a doubles match might, if you look at him closely, turn out to be Bo Belinsky, or an evil-eyed killer who almost did in Marshal Dillon of Dodge City in last week's episode, or a fellow who just finished splitting an atom.

There is the story about the time some years back when a lady visitor from the East sat herself on a stool at the bar, ordered a cocktail and asked Tex Gregg, the bartender, if there were any movie celebrities around. Tex cased the room, then turned to Clark Gable, who was also seated at the bar, and asked, "Have you seen any movie stars around?"

"Nope," said Gable. "Haven't seen a single one."

The Racquet Club has a reputation, only partially deserved, of being one of the most exclusive compounds in the state of California. It is not unusual for a big shot from the East who is planning to visit Palm Springs on a vacation to have his secretary or someone phone the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce and ask if Mr. Big could possibly arrange to have a guest card to the Racquet Club. For several years Jack Benny used to have an annual skit on his weekly radio program called "Murder at the Racquet Club." In one such, Benny, as the sheriff of Riverside County, drove up to the front gate of the Racquet Club and demanded admittance so he could investigate the homicide. "Are you a member?" intoned a voice over the club's public-address system.

"No," answered Sheriff Benny.

"Then you can't come in," said the voice.

"All right, throw the body over the wall," Benny shouted back.

Despite its reputation for exclusivity, the Racquet Club has, through the years, cultivated the friendship of the dispossessed, such as journalists and pretty young starlets. Although they don't always like having their privacy invaded by the public, celebrities are not averse to seeing their names in print (in the proper way). In consequence, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, not to mention their less-syndicated colleagues, have found the front gate of the Racquet Club will open for them at a nod. Many a star who was once a starlet posed for her early cheesecake on the springboard of the club's big swimming pool and spent a pleasant weekend there on the cuff. Marilyn Monroe was a case in point; so was Mousie (Mrs. William) Powell, who, since her marriage in 1940 to the famous actor, has been one of the mainsprings of Racquet Club society. Favors like that are not soon forgotten, so a great deal of the Racquet Club's goodwill among stars and public has been due to Charlie Farrell's generosity toward the people who couldn't really afford the luxury of his establishment.

Inside the front gate one finds the atmosphere of the Racquet Club is as relaxed as a hillbilly hoedown. On an average winter weekend, members and guests lounge around the courtside in their white tennis clothes, chatting and watching the matches. Julie Copeland, the energetic blonde tennis hostess who was once a ranking player in New England, sees to it that everyone gets a game with a group of approximately comparable forehands and backhands. You may find yourself playing mixed doubles with Dinah Shore, men's doubles with Robert Stack or just sitting and watching a set or two between some members of the Davis Cup team. Every Tuesday there is Mouseburger night (named after Mousie Powell), when Julie really equalizes the teams—the best man with the worst woman and vice versa. About 9 or 10 in the evening the round robin is finished, the lights on the courts are doused and the prizes awarded. Then everyone has a drink at the bamboo bar before sitting down at a long table covered with cheeseburgers.

A Racquet Club day begins somewhere around 8:30 in the morning, when Charlie Farrell himself comes bursting through the front gate like a williwaw. "Good morning, good morning, good morning," he shouts in the general direction of the first people he sees, and his high-pitched Yankee accents travel to the highest peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains that hover protectively some 10,000 feet above the club. Now 61 years old, Charlie is an eye-catching sight in his multicolored clothes—a pair of linen trousers, an alpaca sweater covering his sports shirt and the stylish ensemble topped by a bright plaid jacket. His hair is pure white now, but all there, his complexion is tan and healthy, his eyes are a lively gray-green, and a sliver of a white mustache tops his upper lip. There is a lot of spring in his 6-foot 1-inch frame and his weight is still a fairly trim 180 pounds.

Once he reaches the club's glass-walled dining room overlooking some tennis courts on one side and the swimming pool on the other, Farrell always sits at the same small table, but only for moments at a time. His voice has by now flushed any waiters who may have been lingering in the interior crevices, and they come forth, towel over arm, just as much to see Board Chairman Charlie as to serve him.

A few of the early risers who occupy some of the 127 rooms in the club's 37 buildings will already be at their breakfasts. Farrell is no sooner seated at his own table than he will jump up from his chair to see what everyone else is eating. "You know what you ought to have with that sausage?" he will say to a diner who appears to be enjoying his breakfast. "A couple of slices of tomato. Very good for the digestion. Reminds me of the time Virginia and I were traveling up in the northern part of Australia, and...." Charlie Farrell is off on the first of perhaps eight dozen anecdotes that cascade from his mouth so tumultuously throughout the day that his words seem to stumble along behind his enthusiasm like newborn puppies trying to follow their mother.

Sitting at breakfast, Farrell has a stethoscopic sensitivity to the problems of the Racquet Club, born of 29 years' parental knowledge of its early stirrings. Out of the window he will see two strangers strolling past the swimming pool and into the garden beyond and, interrupting himself in midsentence, he will grab the telephone. "Louise," he will say to the office manager, "two men in business suits just walked by. Who are they? They aren't those damn county assessors again, are they? Get someone to go find out what they're doing." Then Farrell will go on with what he had been saying, grabbing the forearm of his listener in his exuberance. "... So I came in last night at dinnertime and there was this man with this little recording machine sitting right next to two couples who were having dinner. Dammit, he was playing their whole dinner conversation back to them.

" 'Do you want this recording?' I said to them. 'No,' they said, 'we don't want it.'

"I'd never seen the man in my life before. So I say to him, 'Out.'

" 'But this is the greatest machine ever invented,' he says to me.

" 'O.K.,' I say, 'then take your greatest machine ever invented and out!'

"All we need is this great machine under our beds," Charlie concluded, "and we'll all be in San Quentin—or divorced. No, not in San Quentin, but divorced."

Everyone loves to tell stories about Charlie Farrell, and just about everyone who ever knew him has one. Perhaps the favorite of all is one he enjoys telling on himself. It was early on Easter morning some years ago, and Charlie had been up all night at the local gambling casino with his pal, Townsend Netcher, a rich Chicago merchant. "We'd been doing a lot of drinking," Charlie recalls. "In fact, we both had a pretty good load on. Driving home, I kept thinking of my beautiful, long-suffering wife, so I started singing I'm Coming, Virginia. The sun was already well up by the time we got home, and I remember seeing that beautiful model—what's her name? Anita Colby—already lying alongside the swimming pool in her bathing suit. We were living in the house we'd built at the end of the swimming pool by then, and when I went in the front door I saw this big hat Virginia was planning to wear to Easter Mass. So I tied it on tightly and stepped into the pool for a swim. Pretty soon Virginia came out looking for her hat, and there it was going up and down the pool, with Bright Boy, the spaniel we had at the time, running alongside barking at it. Things were kind of cool around the house for a while.

"Anita Colby," Farrell mused. "It's a funny thing that I can even remember her name. I never forget a face, and I can usually remember where I saw it, but I can never remember names. One time—and, so help me, this is absolutely true—a man came up to me here at the bar and said, 'Hello, Charlie, remember me? Jackson Hole.' So I said 'Why sure. Hello, Mr. Hole.' "

Farrell can be equally vague with the most conspicuous of celebrities. As Mamie Eisenhower was leaving the Racquet Club after lunch one recent afternoon, she paused to tell Charlie what a nice time she had had. "Thank you, dear," said Farrell, momentarily at a loss for the ex-First Lady's name. "I couldn't help it," Charlie said later. "That's just the way I am."

The names that float through Farrell's head after a lifetime among the celebrities of the world read like Frank Sullivan's Christmas ode in The New Yorker. Douglas Fairbanks, Bill Tilden, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Don Budge, Will Rogers, the Prince of Wales, Clara Bow, Ronald Colman, Leslie Howard, William Fox, Big Boy Williams, Eddie Goulding, Peter Lorre, Mickey Cochrane, Fritz Loewe, Rudy Vallee, Efrem Zimbalist, Jack Barrymore, Bing Crosby. On and on they go, and as Charlie's thoughts dance across the years, he isn't always sure he can bring the right name out at the right moment.

The dizzy whirl of Charles Farrell began on August 9, 1902 in East Walpole, Mass., several miles south of Boston. Charlie's father, David, was a motorman on the suburban streetcars of Boston. Having moved his family about 40 miles southeast to Onset Bay and obtained the help of a rich neighbor, the senior Farrell quit the streetcars and opened a movie house. The whole family pitched in—mother Farrell selling the tickets, father Farrell running the projection machine, sister Ruth playing the piano and Charlie sweeping out. "God, how I hate peanuts," Charlie says today.

Earning his keep with odd jobs around his home town, young Farrell matriculated at Boston University, where he captained the boxing team in his senior year and took his degree in business administration. But there didn't seem to be much business for him to administer, and soon his stage career began—as boss of a traveling midget act. Eventually, in 1923, he arrived in Hollywood, with not much more to his name than a few clothes, a cornet and a bag full of golf clubs.

The actors and directors of the infant movie industry were a carefree and playful lot, and the handsome young Irishman from Boston soon learned how to get around in the uninhibited world of Victor Fleming, the elder Doug Fairbanks and the rest. "I was always well dressed," he says, "and had a reputation for being on time, so people began to say, 'Can we have that Charlie Farrell?' I played with Rin Tin Tin and in the Mack Sennett comedies, and Harold Lloyd had me in a lot of pictures. But my real break came while I was working for Vic Fleming on location in Arizona making The Rough Riders, and I got this wire from Fox asking me to come back and play Chico in Seventh Heaven. 'That's great,' Fleming told me.

" 'Vic, it's not great,' I said. 'I'm the lousiest actor in the world.'

" 'Who told you that?' he said.

" 'You did,' I said.

" 'Well, you're not,' he said. So he started to build up my ego, and he got me through with Rough Riders in time to go back and play the part."

A few years later the name of Charles Farrell more or less disappeared forever from the marquees of the nation's movie palaces. Some thought it was because his rather high-pitched Boston accent wouldn't accommodate to the crude recording devices of the early talking pictures (recently it proved most attractive in a TV series, My Little Margie). There was also a widespread rumor that he had been blacklisted by the industry because he was uncooperative with Winfield Sheehan. Sheehan was a former New York City police commissioner who had been placed in charge of the studio by the Chase National Bank after William Fox lost control of the company in the stock market crash. Some thought it was because Sheehan, who had an ill-concealed crush on Janet Gaynor, was jealous of Farrell.

Farrell himself says the reason he quit was because he was fed up. "Sheehan did anything he could to make me feel small," he now explains. "I couldn't take it anymore. He did everything for Janet and nothing for me. He just tried to humiliate me every chance he got. Finally, when my contract came up for renewal, I wouldn't sign. 'Charlie,' the studio lawyer said to me, 'where are you going to earn $3,500 a week this easily?' I told him I didn't give a damn."

That was in 1933. For several years Farrell had been spending a lot of his spare time during the winter in Palm Springs, which was then little more than a desert health resort patronized mostly by tubercular people. Only the main street was paved; it boasted one fair-size hotel called the Desert Inn, some auto courts and a couple of dude ranches on the edge of town.

With his new wife, Virginia Valli, who had been one of the prettiest of Hollywood's young leading ladies, Farrell started spending more and more time in Palm Springs, and his friends did, too. One of the closest of these was Ralph Bellamy, and together he and Farrell bought 200 acres of empty desert several miles north of the center of town for $30 an acre. They hadn't the foggiest notion what they were going to do with the land, but it seemed like a reasonable speculation at the time.

A year or so later, Farrell and Bellamy built a couple of tennis courts and a small dressing room on their land. The original memberships in the infant club cost $75 apiece but soon escalated, as they say in New Frontiersville, to $150. Among the earliest members were Peter Lorre, Carole Lombard, Charles Butterworth, Harold Lloyd, Frank Morgan and a couple of the international café society playgirls, Countess Dorothy di Frasso and Hazel Forbes Richman.

It was pretty haphazard the way the Racquet Club grew from then on. "First, we decided we ought to have a bar so we could serve drinks," Farrell recalls, "so Mitch Leisen designed one of the first bamboo rooms there ever was in this country. And we're still using the original bar, although we've enlarged it a little." Leisen, another R.C. original, was a top Hollywood director.

"Then," Farrell adds, "we decided to put in a swimming pool and after that a solarium to use as a dining room and then a bigger dining room for the Saturday night parties, and cottages for people to stay in, and it just kept growing. I bought out Ralph's part early, because he was too busy to take an active part, and Virginia and I ran it by ourselves. If we needed a little money we would sell some land—the property's worth about $8,000 an acre now—or I'd go up to Hollywood or over to England and make a quick picture."

It was just that casually that Charles Farrell's career got sidetracked from films to sport, where it probably belonged in the first place. For Charlie loved the outdoors and the active life. He bought an interest in a herd of more than 100 horses that his friend, Big Boy Williams, a young cowboy actor, was trying to school for polo. Eventually, Charlie started playing the game himself.

"I was a noisy polo player," Farrell admits. "I remember once when I was making a picture in England I played some polo over there, and people were always asking, 'Who's that noisy American?' You know how the English are—hardly ever say a thing no matter what's happening. Well, I'm not like that. And I learned to play with Big Boy and Snowy Baker and all those guys, and they never stopped yelling and cussing." As polo slowly died out in California with the approach of war, Farrell abandoned it, but he did achieve a respectable two-goal handicap before quitting.

Sailing was another of Farrell's great sporting enthusiasms, and before the war he owned a lovely 45-foot yawl, which Virginia christened Flying Cloud after the famous clipper ship. "We used to race her a lot around the Channel Islands," Farrell recalls. "Bogie, Kenneth McKenna and this German fellow who was the head of wardrobe at Fox. The German had a great feeling for where the winds were, and we used to win a lot of races."

Although he was into his 40s when World War II started, Farrell soon put his affairs at the Racquet Club in order, turned the reins over to Virginia and went to naval officers' training school. In one of those rare instances where the services put a round peg in a round hole, Charlie was assigned to run the bachelor officers' quarters and the officers' club at the Alameda Naval Air Station near San Francisco, where he did a first-rate job. "I worked it so you could get a good steak dinner for $1.25," he says, "but I was worried. You see, the admiral was a friend of mine, and he gave me a free hand to do what I wanted, but we owed a couple of million red points or whatever they called those ration things, and I kept wondering what would happen if they changed admirals and the new man didn't approve. Anyway, I didn't join the Navy to be a restaurant keeper, so I kept after them to send me to sea."

In due course, Farrell caught on as an administrative officer with Fighting Squadron 17, and for the subsequent year he served in the western Pacific with this unit aboard the flattops of the Fast Carrier Task Force. Even today, quite a stream of Farrell's old friends from the Horner and other ships drop in for a visit with him at the Racquet Club, and they always get the full Farrell treatment—hospitality, charm and reminiscences. It is at such times that Farrell goes into one of his most devastating impersonations—that of Admiral J.J. (Jocko) Clark, a most aggressive and belligerent naval officer. Charlie hunches his shoulders, sticks out his lower lip and shuffles around the room, chewing gum and glowering fiercely. He becomes Admiral Clark, commander of one of the great task groups of Task Force 58, giving hell to poor, quavering Lieutenant Farrell. Charlie's Jocko stories put the old Navy men in stitches.

When Farrell returned from the war, he found the Racquet Club more profitable than ever. With the proceeds accumulated during his absence, Virginia had bought enough war bonds to fill the swimming pool. If the matter was ever in doubt, it was by then perfectly obvious that it would be impossible to have a Charlie Farrell without a Virginia Farrell to keep him—and the Racquet Club—on an even keel. It was she, for example, who did most of the interior, decoration and contributed sound common sense to counterbalance Charlie's frequent flights of fancy. She is a woman of extremely good taste, which accounts for the club's homey and comfortable rooms and its air of cool freshness—an oasis of mission-style friendliness tucked among the tall tamarisk and eucalypti of the Coachella desert.

Part of the wartime profits were dissipated in a romantic attempt to operate a summer resort on Catalina Island, but when that project dissolved in debentures the Farrells returned their concentration to Palm Springs, and Charlie began to take an interest in civic affairs. He was elected to the city council and then took over the post of mayor, a nonpaying job somewhat akin to chairman of the council. He served as such for nearly seven years but resigned in a huff near the end of his second term after a dispute over the status of the city manager. Unlike other Bostonians of Irish descent, Charlie Farrell had found the art of politics distasteful.

Then Farrell began to lose his taste for innkeeping, too. He had spent the best years of his life running the Racquet Club, but the old crowd was getting a bit creaky for tennis and was drifting away—or dying off. So he sold out to Robert Morton, a Pasadena businessman who immediately began to enlarge the club, adding 62 new living units, two new tennis courts and another swimming pool to the 58 units, four tennis courts and a single swimming pool that Farrell had maintained.

For a while, Farrell was seldom seen at the club. He had saved his money through the years and invested it wisely, much of it in Palm Springs' booming real estate. At last he was free to take a look at the rest of the world. He and Virginia visited other resorts in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, and when he was in Palm Springs he didn't stray far from his showplace home on the edge of town. Lately, however, much of Farrell's old sociability has returned, and it's getting to be like old times at the Racquet Club again. Charlie is vibrating around the premises from early morning until well into the evening, eating most of his meals there, suddenly appearing in the most unlikely places or bursting out of unexpected doors, keeping the staff on its toes and amused, telling story after story to the people at the bar, never quite seeming to know what time it is or where he is, but somehow not missing a thing.

You might even go so far as to say that Charlie Farrell has rediscovered Seventh Heaven.